The punishing winds of a New Zealand winter greet Joseph Blackstone, his bride Harriet, and his mother Lilian as they settle in at Cob House, their new home fashioned out of mud and straw. The year is 1864, and the three have left England to make their fortune in this bold, wild land.
Rose Tremain’s enthralling ninth novel, The Colour, is set against the background of the New Zealand gold rush, for “the colour” is what these prospectors called gold. Fans of Tremain’s earlier historical novels know well her skill at luring the reader into a faraway world. With sensual images and telling details about the region, she practices a high form of literary escapism. Before you know it, you are ensnared by different strands of story and the fates of diverse characters. Like many immigrants before and after him, Joseph sought to escape his past. Tremain states simply that “in England, he had done a disgraceful thing.” The shadow of it haunts him all through the book only to be revealed near the end.
She creates a worthy heroine in Harriet, the tall, former governess who “carries herself well.” Harriet proves an excellent settler for this new land, as eager to adapt as her mother-in-law Lilian is reluctant. An early scene at Cob House shows Joseph’s mother meticulously mending her English china, broken on the voyage. Joseph saw then that “he had failed her, just as he had always and always failed her . . . he couldn’t remember any single day when he had pleased her enough.”
Joseph’s story turns into a fevered search for gold in a setting filled with desperate men. Harriet’s is something else again. No true villains exist in The Colour—just flawed human beings following their dreams in a natural world that seems bent on squashing them.